Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sweat

Sweat poured down his face. That’s what you do in this country you sweat. Unless you live in the mountains, but the majority of the country sweats. He made it in time. It was the last bus to the south and he had to get out of the capital before tomorrow. A general strike had been organized. The cost of living had gotten too high and the people weren’t going to take it. The entire country was about to blow up. There was no doubt the capital would be out of control. Huelgas are strikes, but in this country huelgas are riots. Rocks, glass bottles, anything that can be picked up and thrown will be thrown. Tires will be lit on fire. Authority will take a backseat to the tireless mobs. And for twenty-four hours anarchy will rule the Dominican Republic.


It won’t change any prices. Life will be a little worse. Everyone that needs that daily income – from pushing a cart through the streets selling coconut water, to driving a carro route back and forth – will be set back a day’s pay and the cost of living will be that much harder to catch up to. But that’s not on his mind right now. Now he just wants to get the fuck out of dodge before the explosion of riled Dominicans swarm the streets of the capital. A gringo hanging around with some pissed nationals doesn’t seem smart. He’s seen the strikes before. Transportation strikes happen all over the country. Drivers from one route take the passengers of another route and hostility breaks out. You can see the evidence in the cracked windshields and dented sides of the guaguas. Towns strike over loss of electricity, which he never understood. No one pays for their electricity, how can a people strike over the loss of a service that they don’t pay for to begin with? But they do. He’s driven through one of those. There was only one road that went through the town and the people blocked it with rock piles and burning tires. Ten men with stones the size of their fists in each hand stood in the middle and to the side, aiming at any car that pushed the accelerator and made a run for it. The chofer that trip was a friendly of the town. After a brief conversation with one of them he was waved through. Frustrated faces gave solemn nods to answer the driver’s horn and lowered their rocks as the guagua weaved around the flames and the rocks and onward.


That was a small coastal town blocking one road. Tomorrow there was a huelga planned to envelope the entire country. He just wanted to get out, back to his rural coastal town where everything would be quiet. He hopped the last guagua to Pedernales at 3 pm. It was full, he thought. He took a seat against the window in the back. Inside was hotter than out and he sweat, but that’s what you do in this country. All the seats were taken when they left. Four grown men including him took up the backseat. In front of them there were seven rows of two seats—aisle—one seat. There were chairs connected to the two seats that folded up like an armrest, and could fold down over the aisle to fit one more. Only one of those was folded down. A heavy fellow with a shirt two sizes small sat there, sweat pouring down his face, but well that’s what you do in this country. He leaned forward and his shirt came halfway up his back revealing a pistol tucked between his jeans and hip. The gringo’s seen it before. Once in El Seibo he was waiting for his chimi when something fell down the pant leg of the man standing next to him and landed with a metallic thud. He looked down to discover a gun with a worn wooden handle lying on the ground. “Ay!” said the man, and without a thought bent over to pick it up. It was the Wild West. If they wanted a gun, they were going to have a gun, and if they wanted to strike, well, they were going to strike, because that’s what you do in this country…you do what you want, and you sweat.


They began to roll out of Santo Domingo, down 27 de Febrero. This isn’t going to be such a bad ride. The air has already dried the sweat on the passengers’ faces and actually feels cool. Then around Plaza de la Bandera and they stop. The air stops. A dead heat fills the cabin again and sweat automatically charges out of pores like ole’ faithful. Everyone’s drenched in seconds, and Look! There are more people dying to jump the last bus south. Everyone is trying to escape the forecasted fog of teargas and burning-rubber-smoke. There are four people in la cocina? “Pero que pasa hombre? Ponte atrás.” There still is room, there’s supposed to be five in the back.


The guy that just got on doesn’t look promising. He squeezes through the aisle, and damn, this man just isn’t going to fit. His ass is about two feet wide and even with the American pushed up against the wall there’s only a foot of space in the cocina. The four of them make minor adjustments and of course they make it work. Somehow it always works. With him in, the rest scramble on and all of the aisle seats are folded down. Bueno, ahora esta llena la guagua. Now the gringo is one of five with seven rows of four in front. The window he’s pushed up against doesn’t open. God, seven rows of four large Dominicans now block the exit. Deep breaths rubio don’t panic. The air is a little thicker, harder to suck the oxygen out of. Deep breaths and they’re moving again. The air comes back and they’re barreling west on autopista 6 de noviembre. The buses suspension doesn’t hold well, and they bounce along the paved highway like they’re riding a campo dirt road, but they’re making time and cruising.


The bus isn’t much to look at. It looks broke down. Dents and scratches decorate the outside, evidence of long hauls made and accidents had. Black stickers put up to shade the sun are pealing off like paint chips. It could be one of those transports that take commuters just out of the city and ya. It would barely be able to handle that task let alone the seven-hour trip it has in front of it, west through Bani and Azua, before taking a left to travel south through Barahona and finally west again on to Pedernales. There’s no chance. Those tires are as toothless as the campesinos riding them, bald as hell. No chance they’ll stick to the winding 44 along the coast and through the desert. It’s carrying too much weight to be making those turns at those speeds. But they’ll make it, they always do.


There’s no horn, or at least it’s not working at the moment. The driver passes the duty on to his assistant, the man collecting fare. He pays attention to the road in front and whenever the bus gets in the passing lane the cobrador leans out the door and blows a warning through a long white PBC pipe, ERRRRRRRRR! He’s cut holes in it too and turned it into an instrument. He’s memorized a few Bachata choruses and blows the tunes out to the traffic. He’s just showing off now. The bus isn’t even passing—not a vehicle for kilometers, but he blows out a chorus to the open road—dadadadadada da daaa.


he bus slows down and comes to a stop under a bridge. ERRR ERRR dadadadadada da daaa. A group of Dominicans waits with their bags. No, Rubio is in the back shaking his head, there’s no way, but ten more shuffle in. Minor adjustments are made and now seven rows of five are in front of him. It’s escape from El Capital. No one want’s to stick around to see what happens, and everyone waited to the last minute to figure it out. “Pero mira el blanco!” He looks uncomfortable. Don’t worry chico, we can fit more! People are already stacked on top of each other; doubled over, bent, and folded to size so they can fit in their square foot of paid space. Arms over backs over arms over legs over feet, over bags…Deep breaths gringo, the air is even thicker and there hasn’t been a breeze since they stopped. The sweat has already started dripping down his nose again but hell, that’s what you do in this country.


The bus moves on and starts through the western country. Passengers seek out a comfortable position for a little sleep, anything to make this ride quicker. Arms are folded and slumped over the headrest in front. Heads are down in the crooks of elbows, or against the Plexiglas windows. The suspension has been suffering. Every turn and bump in the road bangs heads against some nearby object. The Merengue is blasting out of the stereo and…dadadadadada da daaa… that fucking horn. The Dominicans have found the groove of the bus and go along with it in their sleep. Everyone has become part of the guagua. They sway around the curves and bounce up and down with it. Not blanco in the back. He’s not getting any shuteye on this trip. He’s pushed up against the window but he doesn’t have enough room to make a comfortable angle against the glass. He’s got a headrest in front of him but each bounce slides his sweaty arms off of the seat and his head bangs into the chair in front of him. No sleep so he just stares out the window that won’t open.


Once out of the city and passed Bani the country starts to grow. At first the plantain fields stretch out for miles but then, further west, mountains explode out of the ground in the distance. The landscape is still lush on the way to Azua. Platano, guineo, caña, everything is growing green and tall. Huge patches of land are packed with agriculture to the mountain walls. Campesinos with machetes and mules packed high with produce walk through the fields…and then Azua. It ends without warning. As if clouds with full bladders looked over at their choice of space to relieve themselves, saw Azua and said “Hell, I’m not pissing over there.” Dry. The country begins to roll with dusty hills, boney hills with sparse skinny trees and cacti.


The road starts to wind and the bus cruises on, passengers swaying right as the bus veers left and left and as it curves to the right. Everyone is in synch, the road the bus, the people…the gringo? No his ass is killing him. He’s been putting all his weight on one cheek for the past two and a half hours and now his entire left leg is numb. The toes stopped tingling back outside of Bani. He needs to switch but the other one is hanging off the seat, pinched between the edge of the bench and the wall of the bus. He tries to get a little of the right cheek on the chair but there is no space. There’s no chance. The man next to him has about four bags on his lap and he’s right up against the rubio. He goes to adjust his arm so he can push himself up. There is no room for it. The elbow of the man to his right has found its place and it won’t give. The man is asleep, synched in.


He finds it. He gets one hand up on the headrest of the chair in front, and one on the thin ledge of the window. He pushes himself up for a second and turns his body ever so slightly towards the window and gently lowers that right ass cheek onto the seat. Success!! The reward is instant, blood flow to the left leg and feeling in the toes! It’s only a few inches adjustment, but it gives the gringo confidence, maybe he will make it.


They roll up and down and around the bony hills and pass through various desert towns, pueblos del Sur. Towns engulfed in dust, where Dominicans protect themselves in wood houses covered by zinc roofs, wood houses with holes and spaces between planks. Homes impossible to keep clean as sand continuously flows in with the wind. There is no agriculture in this town. There is no river. There is no ocean nearby. Who knows how it began. A frontier town that people couldn’t leave. It has its value somewhere, under all that dust, behind the hills. They roll passed these towns without a second glance, but the children of the pueblo look after the bus as it rolls out of sight behind another boney hill.


They continue on, deeper into the southern desert to the lost city of Barahona filled with lost boys, vagos, and locos. It’s a Wild West town in this Wild West country. The gringo has seen the lawlessness. He was witness to the beating of a woman in the central park, open abuse of youth working in the street, and bums throwing glass beer bottles from across the malecon. One of which sailed right over a POLITUR pick-up truck before crashing on the sidewalk. The tourism police took a quick glance out their window before moving on.


The only policing force is the G-2, a group set out to monitor Haitian immigration. They have checkpoints set up around the city, and they’ll let you in, but won’t let you out. You can pass on if the direction is west. The further west the bus goes the quicker it’s ushered through. This bus is destined for Pedernales. “Vete, lleva los Haitianos pa’lla!” The Further away from the capital the better and this bus is on a straight shot to the border.


Getting out of Barahona without papers doesn’t happen. That paper can have your name on it, a few valid numbers, and your photo, but your guaranteed less hassle if that paper has the name of a dead revolutionary, a high number, and a photo of some building on the back. It’s a Wild West town in a Wild West country, and money is your key. But this bus is going west and getting in isn’t the problem. The bus moves on over the speed bump and passed the waving official and his entourage of over dressed, over armed militants, the ejército.


The guagua shoots through Barahona. It’s late afternoon on Sunday, and the streets are empty save for the few colmados, liquor stores, billiard halls, and bars where the Dominicans are dancing merengue and bachata, slapping dominoes, shooting pool, and enjoying the last day of the weekend with Brugal and cerveza. The bus moves on. Passengers look out longingly. They’re thinking of catching their colmados before they close but they know they won’t get home until ten tonight. They’re only in Barahona there’s another three hours left before this piece of junk arrives at its destination.


Not the gringo, he sees the home stretch laid out in front of him. The coastal 44 is all that sits between our rubio and salvation. The other leg is going numb, but he doesn’t let it bother him. In forty-five minutes he’ll be out. He looks out the window.


South of Barahona the land bursts out of the ocean. To the east the sea reaches out to the horizon and to the west, mountains carpeted in a dense jungle jut out of the water and sail up towards the sky. The road twists in and out of these peaks, and the guagua hugs the faulty guard-rails that were built too far back to remember to keep 16-wheelers from tumbling down cliffs that drop inches away from the road. Pero este chofer sabe! He knows the road. He drives back and forth, ida y vuelta, three times a day between Pedernales y el Capital. He’s in synch with the highway. He know’s every turn, every pothole, every narrow stretch of the 44 and with fifty-some-odd people synched in and swaying with every touch of the wheel he can make this heap of metal hurtle around turns with a heavy foot pushing that pedal to the rusted floor, and he has, and he will for the entirety of this seven hour journey to the Western Frontier.


Los Patos is in the headlights, the end, the destination for el gringo. He’s in the back corner. There are forty-nine-some-odd people crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, and hip-to-hip in front of him. The aisle seats are down and two asses are in each one. Everyone is on the bus for the long-haul, Pedernales. Rubio should have grabbed a seat up front, but now he’s yelling at the cobrador to stop the bus and let him off. “Dejame!” he screams and the entire bus turns around to see a white face pushed up against a window that doesn’t open. The entire bus is going to have to file off, and then back on again. Jealous looks, and looks of anger shoot to that back corner. But wait the window in front. “El es flaco!” He’ll fit! Just a few people move, stand up, lean, adjust and squeeze and he’s standing on the seat in front and out the window. FREE! They throw his bag out the window after him and drive off.


The American makes his way up the hill to his home. The drive left him salty and sticky from the sweat, but hell, that’s what you do in this country.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dusty Cans

“¿Qué diablo e’ eso?” I was looking down into the contents of an
unlabeled gold colored tin can that was being held at arms length under my
face by my neighbor’s daughter. The top was opened part way with a knife and
then bent upwards revealing a murky brown-orange liquid. I leaned over it
and took a whiff. Memories rushed into my head, but they were fuzzy. I smelled this before. I was back in the states and I was young. I couldn’t
remember exactly where or when, but that smell, what was it. I reached over
for a fork and poked around inside the can.


“Creo que son batatas, pero…son un color raro.” She was thinking
of a starch they grow in the Dominican. When cooked they look a little like
potatoes but they have a hint of sweetness. These things floating around in
the golden can were orange. I was tentative to take a bite, but there was no
other way to figure out what it was. “papas dulces,” I said, sweet potatoes.
I tried to explain to her what they were but she ended up throwing away the
can anyways. “dañadas,” she said, damaged.



The padre at one of the evangelical churches in town asked a
sister church in the States for a little help for his flock. Down came boxes
and boxes of canned and packaged food. The kind of food that, after a comet
comes and destroys life on earth, one extra-terrestrial will find floating
along the Atlantic, or at least what was the Atlantic at one point.


The pueblo was buzzing with the news. Everyone, save for a few
heathens, went to church that Tuesday night. I stayed home. After the
service had ended a few visitors swung by bearing gifts. I knew that being a
Peace Corps volunteer meant that I would be living around the same level as
the neighbors that surrounded me, but I did not realize that I advertised
this. One by one, friends came by with one or two cans that they pilfered
from the boxes. I was embarrassed and declined at first. What would those
god fearing Americans say if they found out that a donated can of Caskey’s
condensed vegetable soup with beef stock ended up, not in a pot over a
fogón, a coal burning device that holds a pot, but over the gas table stove of a volunteer. It was useless. They
were determined to fatten me up on the canned goods. When they left I pondered the new stock I had on my shelf. Now, food-drives
have been an honored tradition for Americans since…well probably since
canned food was mastered. Every Christmas, New Years, or Thanksgiving home pantries are
raided, and those cans with the dust on the lids are thrown into a bag and
carried off to the Salvation Army, the church, temple, tabernacle, or what
have you. The receivers always appreciate the donations, and for
this reason the tradition continues. At times, however, like this one in
particular, I wonder what goes through the minds, if anything at all, of
those who are emptying the cabinets. I was looking at three dented selections in
particular.

Hunt’s Paste, I had two cans of it now. If only we could stop world hunger
with tomato paste. What are people going to do with it?
One can’t eat it straight, although apparently it is 100% natural, and one
can get 10% of his daily vegetables with one serving. I imagined the cans
getting flown to a rural village in Africa and the contents being scooped
out in blood red globs to be consumed. Lucky for the churchgoers, Dominicans
use it for almost every sauce they make, that and ketchup, a happy accident. Maybe they
knew. That must have been it. They did their research on Dominican cuisine
before they fetched the non-perishables from the shelves.

But then, what…why…? Even if it wasn’t the Dominican Republic, and it was
sent to some eastern European country that lacked food rich in Vitamin C,
why would one send Fruit Cocktail? “In heavy syrup,” none of that light
stuff. Shelly’s Grove doesn’t fool around. But to the DR, which, one may know
if he looked at the literature of a few coffee bags, cigar labels, sugar
packets, banana stickers, or any fruit stickers for that matter, is a
country rich in agriculture. Fruit stands are like Starbucks in the capital, Santo
Domingo, they’re on every corner. In rural pueblos people just throw rocks at
mango trees to get their fill. I could be judging too quickly, I’ve never
tasted Shelly’s stuff, maybe the heavy syrup makes a difference. I just
can’t see fruit canned in Coldwater, Michigan being any better than what
hangs off the trees here. I can’t throw all the blame on our lack of attention. The communication from the Dominican minister was not all that clear. Help was the cry, and help came.

Halsted Acres Dark Red Kidney Beans, now there’s a thought, beans. Shipped to anywhere else and it wouldn’t be a
bad idea. Protein, carbs, no trans fat, and hey, they even have a “farm
fresh taste.” In the DR it’s sin to eat canned beans. If a neighbor catches
you opening up a can of Goya beans for that moro (a Dominican favorite of
rice and beans) you’re about to make, you’re due for at least a
fifteen-minute lecture. I’ve been called out before. “Eso hace daño.
Necesita comer comida fresca, comida natural. Hay químicos.” It isn’t a hard
thing to do here, to eat fresh. It’s cheap too, but again, the message wasn’t clear. There were other gifts too: a couple of bags of pasta. One was Ramon, which I was
excited about, and the other was a bag of “Pasta on the Side”, the contents of
which were crushed to a fine powder from the shipping.


I’ve participated in many a food drive. From delivering the packages to
taking the left over Easy-Mac bags to that box in the common room at the end
of the school year. This was the first time, though, that I’ve been on the
receiving end, or been in the receiving community, and it was strange. Not
because I was receiving them, but that I was watching campesinos with yucca (a starch similar to the potato)
farms open up cans of potatoes. Dominicans with mango and avocado trees
were peering into cans of preserved peaches. I felt a little embarrassed, knowing that I was also guilty of not thinking and simply
reaching to the back of the cabinet and tossing those canned sardines I
bought on a whim in the brown bag to be taken to charity.

We can’t help it. We feel it’s our duty as wealthy first world citizens to
help and to aid those with less. We have the tendency to throw everything
towards a cause, everything. Sometimes it’s too much, sometimes it doesn’t
fit the need, like the donation of a fruit cocktail to a mango farmer, and
sometimes it just isn’t thought out, like grabbing the tomato paste and
sending it to the developing world. They’ll figure out how to make their own
version of spaghetti sauce. I just hope someone else sent the spaghetti. If
we are going to help, and we are, there needs to be some planning, some
knowledge. What does the community need? What do we have that can help them?
In what way will we be able to best serve them? Having been in the Dominican for nine months I have noticed necessities that are lacking in my community and they are basic: shoes, notebooks, pens and pencils, public-school uniforms (a light blue polo shirt), and books (in Spanish) are some examples. If you do feel compelled to send food, look to staples rich in protein such as peanut butter, and nuts. We all want to help, and we can all do better than dusty cans.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Meat is Murder

*ATTN: This may be a little grafic*

I commissioned my first murder the other day. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. My moral compass, strangely, has not shifted. I got away with it too; until this confession. I’ll try to remember the details as best I can, but it all happened so fast. No sooner was the money exchanged the deed had been done. A truck delivered her early in the morning. She knew. They pulled her out of the back and the fear in her eyes said it all. She began squawking immediately and didn’t stop until her head lay on the ground. That’s when the body started. It took a couple minutes for it to stop flailing around. I looked on, curious at first. Did I get my money’s worth? Did I get the right guy? Does he know what he’s doing? Then with the first spasm I was horrified. What had I done? This was a mistake. She didn’t deserve it…

It wasn’t until later that night that I recognized the necessity of what had been done. It was the best chicken I’ve ever had. Cilantro, onions, peppers, garlic, a little bit of sugar, served with some white rice, and damn, I was licking my plate. I had been living on a steady bean and rice diet. My meat was fish, canned fish in a spicy tomato sauce. “PICANTE” it said on the cans. Fresh meat was a luxury that I would have killed for, and did.

The pick-up truck passes every day in the morning. Crates of live chickens fill the bed and a scale hangs off the back. The driver speaks into a megaphone quicker than an auctioneer as he drives by. “Pollo, pollo vivo, 25 pesos por libra. Pollo, pollo.” It’s the Dominican equivalent of the Fenway Frank vendor walking up and down the aisles. “Chk’n heah, live chk’n heah, 25 pesos a pound, chiiii-cken heah.”

Day after day I continued to allow the truck to pass by my house without making a purchase. I had a fear that I would change. I grew up with a love, almost an obsession of meat. I can’t understand vegetarians. There’s such flavor in meat why would you give it up? Don’t like the way animals are treated? They have farms that raise animals well and kill them quick. Sure it might be more expensive, but don’t give up meat all together. Just trying to stay healthy? Well maybe lay off red meat for a little while, but don’t give it up all together. Environmental reasons? What? I’ve heard that people don’t eat meat because cows “expel” gasses that harm the atmosphere. Then I guess we’ll have to round them all up and have a feast. There’s other meat you can eat besides cow. DON’T give it up all together. Religious reasons? Ok, that one I can’t argue with.

The idea of this change scarred the hell out of me. There was the thought that, by watching the slaughter of this animal, I would reel back in horror and cross that line. I would be that guy at the steak house asking if they had any vegetarian entrees. I would be talking to my friends about the horrible conditions pigs live in, and how chickens deserve better feed and more recess time to walk around the yard. It scared me.

The other day I finally caved. I got a four-pounder for ninety-five pesos, roughly three dollars for a whole chicken. Jacob and I tied the legs of the bird and hung it upside down against a wall outside my house. This was to make sure that once the cut had been made the blood would drain out. I think that at this point, if I haven’t already, I’ve lost all the vegetarian readers. So, carnivores, I’ll continue without censoring. Once the hen was hanging I grabbed my kitchen knife and handed it to Jacob. He was timid with his first cut of the throat. The bird made a small noise and then was silent, not dead, but silent. Blood began to slowly drip from the cut onto the earth. We watched it for a few seconds before I turned to my hired hand to complain that the blood just wasn’t coming out fast enough. Jacob nodded and took the dull blade and began sawing.

I have heard that in the times of the guillotine, victims’ deaths were not as quick as the fall of the blade. After it landed on the chopping block and the head had fallen into the basket, it is said that, the victim was still conscious and able to see for a few moments after the, well, the end of the event. All of this is hearsay, and there was no researching involved in what I have said, except for what was witnessed in the thirty seconds after the blade reached the other side of the chicken’s neck.

The head fell with a light thud onto the ground. I looked down at it and saw the eyes blinking slowly. Its mouth was opening and closing, and the tongue went in and out licking the air. I watched the eyes for a moment longer. There was no change; they still had life in them. Suddenly they looked up and I followed them to the headless body. There was a frenzied flapping of the wings as they beat against the body and the wall forcing the chicken to throw itself away and back against the cement blocks. The floundering spattered the blood all over the feathers. It continued in this way for half-a-minute. Eventually the spasms became less and less frequent until the now pink bird was still.

I waited for it. Jacob and I pulled the feathers out. We peeled the skin off the feet. I watched as he cut open the bottom and extracted the organs, and then I put it in a bowl and into the fridge. That cute, white, cuddly bird with the brown shit stains on her backside had been changed into a promising dinner. Still, it never came. The spasms freaked me out a little, but in the end I had no desire to jump ship and say good-bye to the meat industry and its foul practices to find the nearest co-op for tofu and granola. It was one of the best chicken dinners I’ve had. It wasn’t murder. It was damn good.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

"Dame cinco!"

We’re paid eleven thousand pesos monthly, some nine thousand, enough for us to get by well, damn well in this country. It feels like nothing though. Around the twentieth I’m always down, under a thousand. Hope the new payment system will bump up my account a little earlier this month. Jacobo needs help. He’s got a two-month-old debt at the colmado, hundred-fifty pesos. Two months? Hundred-fifty pesos? Daisy must be hassling him bad. I help him out. We’ve definitely become frugal. 150 pesos, well that’s a little more than four dollars that he needs. My mouth was wide open when he told me though. Here and there he needed ten pesos, or five, and I obliged, but a hundred-fifty? I almost said no. There was no other way he could have paid it. He worked over the summer, earned seven hundred pesos fixing fishnets for a neighbor, and then school started. In the campo one person can squeeze a good amount of time out of seven hundred pesos. Jacobo lives with his younger sister and his grandmother. He’s the only one that brought money into the family that summer. The seven hundred didn’t last.

My neighbor came by. He’s a young kid, ten years old. He’s always asking, for a little food, a little water, a small cup of café, something or other. If I’m making something when he comes by there’s always another empty plate that appears when I’m getting ready to serve. Sometimes I’m bothered by it. I know he’s eaten already, but it’s hard to get mad. “Pero tengo hambre Samuel!” I look over at my shelf. I still have four cans of beans left. I look down in the pot. I always make too much muro anyway. Today he wants ten pesos. He wants to play baseball, but he needs to buy a ball. He was eating some of my peanut butter by the spoonful when he asked. Something inside my chest squeezed a little, and I could feel my jaw clench. I settled down a little and sent him on an errand and gave him ten pesos for the trouble. Trying to instill that old lesson my parents hammered into my consciousness; money doesn’t grow on trees. I still have trouble with it, but maybe I can get him to understand if I make him do something for the small coin. He ran out towards the colmado. I looked across the street to his house. Their family doesn’t have much. They live in a small wooden house with a zinc roof. They do all their cooking in a lean-to made of wood and palm that sits just to the left of the house. His dad hasn’t been able to find work. There’s not much work to find. Still, every now and then I get food from them, a plate of rice and beans, or a plate of bacalao. I know how to cook a little, but not like them. There’s always a flavor I can’t put my finger on. Experience maybe, experience creating something out of nothing.

Another neighbor stalked by. She’s old. She uses a cane, it’s a stick worn smooth near the top where her wrinkled hand holds. She walks bent with age and her face defines it. Her lips are sucked inside her mouth, wrapped around toothless gums. Her eyes have sunk a little and the wrinkled skin is draped over cheekbones and hangs under her chin and jaw. Jacobo says she’s a witch. She’s come by before asking for ten pesos. I always help her out, but today I gave the last of my change away for a baseball. “Ay, perdón pero no tengo menudo.” No change.

“Oh ay pero hoy Dios no sirve pa’na’ estoy aqui con una pierna dañada. No tienes na’?” It’s the first time I heard it, the only time I heard it. In this country, in this pueblo, everything is thanks to god, gracias a Dios. “Estoy aquí, gracias a Dios.” “estoy guanta’o, pero vivo, gracias a dios.” People are always asking for help, but always thankful for what they have. There have always been complaints, but bitterness? Never. I repeated it in my head, “Dios no sirve pa’na’” (god don’t serve for nuthin). Outside my door the lady was bent over her stick shaking her head and looking down. I told her maybe later. Yea, come back later I’ll have some change later. I had a fifty-peso-bill, hell, there was a hundred-peso-bill on the table inside the house. Why don’t I just give her that?

“más tarde?” she asked without looking up.

“Sí, viene más tarde, creo que voy a tener menudo más tarde.” I put my hand out not thinking about which one it was, but realized too late. She struggled to take her hand off of her cane, and held on to one of the iron bars of the galleria for support with the other, and then shook my hand. She held on to the bar while she replaced her hand on the cane. Then she let go, and started on her journey to her house down the road.

She passes by about twice or three times a day, but only asks for change when she really needs it. Maybe she’ll come back later, I hope she does. I have change, a five-peso coin. I can give her five pesos now. It’s sitting on a fifty-peso-bill on the table. It keeps ringing in my head. “Pero Dios no sirve pa’na’,” dijo ella.

The Good Do

I arrived in Los Patos on Monday. The pueblo was different. The main street was set up for patronales, but the gaiety and excitement that came with the weeklong fiesta wasn’t there. It probably sounds too cliché, but it was raining. It had rained all weekend, and continued to fall through Tuesday. I got out of the guagua across the street from Cafeteria Hollywood on the main road, and started the walk up the hill. Something bothered me. The cobrador cheated me out of ten pesos for the ride. No, that wasn’t it. I passed a few vecinos and acquaintances. A few waves, and some smiles greeted me, but there was heaviness in the gestures. I had been away for the weekend visiting other volunteers, and I had missed something. Maybe it was just Monday, I thought. I was thinking of the drive from Barahona. What was bothering me started to come into focus. The other passengers said something about motorcycles. When I step into a guagua I shut off. I go into a trance and block-out the other voices, the arguments, the bachata, everything. I thought hard, trying to recollect the conversation. They were arguing about how many bikes there were. No, not how many were there, how many were involved. It was an accident.

Jacob told me that he said something before he left, “algo…raro,” he said. “Le vi antes que salió…le dije, que lo que hermanito. Entonces me dijo…” he paused a minute before finishing. A lump gathered in his throat. He wasn’t sure how to put it. Thinking it over, it probably didn’t sound as strange out loud as it did in his head. “Y él me dijo, dime Jacobo, quizás nos vemos más tarde.” Jacob put an emphasis on “quizás,” maybe. It would have been nothing if Jacob saw Blady later that day.

Three had died. Blady, 21 and Jabao, 20 were from Los Patos. Riley, 18, was visiting for Patronales from Santo Domingo. A fourth, Maquíto, is still in the Hospital in Santo Domingo recovering. We know what happened because of the fourth.

Blady borrowed a motto to go to Paraíso and gunned it out of Los Patos. The road between the two towns is well paved, but it curves like a snake. As Blady neared the first blind curve, Yarin, a youth from Los Patos, cruised around from the opposite direction and passed him. Blady took a quick glance to see who it was. Whether he identified Yarin or not, we cannot be sure. It’s also unclear if Blady saw Maquíto driving up behind him. In the next instant Riley and Jabao, following behind Yarin, but not quite clear of the blind curve, slammed head on into Blady’s borrowed motorcycle. Riley, the medics said, was gone on impact. Blady was thrown into the grass on the side of the road. With a helmet its possible Jacob may have seen him later that day, “quizás,” but Blady’s naked head hit rock. Maquíto was able to slow his vehicle down, but not enough to avoid the wreckage of metal and flesh in the middle of the road. He lay in the road unconscious when the crash was discovered. Jabao was also found unconscious, and in bad shape, but alive. He was, desbaratado, as they put it. His body was broken, and opened at the chest, but somehow he was breathing. They got him to Paraíso where they used an ambulance to drive him to the hospital in Barahona, a forty-five minute to an hour drive. In Barahona the rescue party discovered that the hospital was not equipped to handle such injuries. Jabao did not survive the three-hour journey to the capital.

A silence fell over Los Patos. I arrived two days after it happened, and one day after Jabao and Blady were lowered into the ground. The cemetery lies just north of the town, two kilometers passed the accident site on the same road. I haven’t been to see the graves. Graveyards are depressing sites, memorial after memorial stand lonely, abandoned. Each one is older and more abused by the elements than the previous. Names of forgotten relatives, and other names without faces are chipped into stone. Below are corpses. The people we go to visit, to remember, to talk to, are not there. A rotting shell lies six feet below kneeling mourners. I’ve never been to a grave of a loved one, or of a friend. Every burial site I’ve seen was filled with old skeletons of strangers never known by me, with names already forgotten. That could be the cause of my depressing view.

I don’t think I’ll ever go to see the earth that covers them. When I wish to see Jabao, I’ll look back to the times we went to the “gym.” A yard in front of an unknown house with weights made out of bars stuck into buckets of dried cement on either side. The kid was always lifting. Or maybe the time he made all the muchachos pick weeds outside of the computer center if they wanted to use a computer. We cleaned up three quarters of the patio in an hour that day.

Blady will always come back to me on the basketball court. Even when he was double teamed and fouled on the way to the basket he was able to push the ball in the net. He was good. If we were playing against each other I was guarding him. I never understood how the ball always went in. Like any court there were always dirty players. They’d call small fouls, change scores, etc. I couldn’t stand these players and Blady was always laughing at my frustration. He knew.

It’s strange, still. The people I’ve known that have passed, have done so in the evening of their lives. With these experiences death always came to me as an inevitability, something that happens once age turns a life, once filled with eagerness and excitement, into a tiresome ordeal. It’s sad, but I liked that view better than always believing it was around the corner, or hiding on the other side of a blind curve. That view took life, cut it short. The other smoothed off its edges.

Either way death is never easy. I’ve never known anyone that welcomed it as a friend. I’ve seen tired acceptance, but never joy at its arrival. Just as wood resists the blade of a saw, and splinters in the struggle until enough of the piece is cut and the wood surrenders to the blade, the human life frays and pushes against the cold sickle before it looses its strength and gives with acceptance. Maybe in that sense to be surprised by a clean cut is better. Billy Joel said something around those lines.

I’m rambling, but I’m still in disbelief. Two days before it happened Blady, another, and I ran the court. I still have a picture in my mind of him going up for a rebound. Jabao I saw joking around with friends at the river just this week. What do you mean they’re gone? I just saw them. They were fine, they weren’t sick, they weren’t old, and people don’t die healthy and young. Maybe Joel was right, the good do. I think I’ll have to stop by that cemetery.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Muchacho


After about a month in site, I, and others in my group, have found the single most resourceful and efficient force in the Dominican Republic. It does not stem from government, nor can any of the hundreds of NGOs in country claim this “vaina” as their own. It is the “muchacho.” A few of us have joked, well half joked, that if muchachos took over the Dominican government the DR might be right up there next to the US in terms of world powers. I have been in country, about four months now. I have talked with committees, politicians, missionaries, Mormons, and NGOs, and while all have good, even great intentions at times, none can get things done like the muchacho. When a muchacho is given a mission it gets done.

A few weeks ago I was visiting a friend of mine a few towns north of my own. His host brother of 16 years was about to go get dinner, and asked if we wanted to come. When I saw him carrying snorkel gear I knew we were not just going down to the local colmado to pick up fideos. When I asked him how we were going to find dinner, he informed me that a harpoon would be used. I did not see one in his hand nor anywhere in his home. Riley, the muchacho, preceded to walk around his house where he found the remains of a spring mattress. With some wire cutters and some muscle he was able to separate two pieces of metal rods, not quite the thickness of my small finger, that were manufactured, at one point, to wrap around the mattress at the top and bottom. With these two bent rods Riley grabbed a large stone and began straightening them out. When they reached a degree of his liking he began working on the tip. Somehow between the surfaces of a blunt rock and the street he was able to make a point like a needle. The four of us, Riley, his cousin Tony, John (my friend,) and I, started down for the beach where Tony and Riley found a couple of trashed plastic jugs. They cut off the handles and put the newly formed spears through hollow handles, creating a handhold of their own, then by tying a band of rubber, not to be confused with a rubber band, to the spear and the handle the muchacho suddenly turned a rusting mattress, and a piece of trash into a deadly hunting tool.

John and I stayed with them awhile and watched while they snorkeled alongside jagged rocks where waves crashed. We found a few sea urchins and cracked them open to slurp out the little meat that was in them, but that was as close to muchacho standards as we came. After about an hour the two of us walked back up along the beach to meet up with some other friends. Later that night we returned to John’s house to find that Riley had brought back three lobsters, eight huge sea snails, and speared four fish. He brought home a feast with a rusty mattress.

In all my “endeavors” since, I have by-passed the committee I work with, and gone straight to muchachos for help. They have helped me to create and distribute surveys, and announcements. They’ve advertised classes, and hell, one 17 year old helped me find, and negotiate a fair rent on a place to live. It is almost scary the efficiency with which they work, but to a Peace Corps volunteer in a country where electricity, water, and communication are shaky, it’s nice to have something to rely on.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Dominoes


Ah yes, the long awaited ¨peace¨ on Dominoes; a game as attached to the Dominican Republic as Football is to England, or Baseball to the United States. There are few Colmados (corner stores) without domino sets and tables. The ones that lack the game seem to always be a little more empty than the others. The game is usually played with four players, two pairs. Your ¨enfrente,¨ your partner, sits across the table from you. Each player takes seven fichas, tiles, from the table and play begins. In the first hand the player with the double six (6:6) begins, after this the player that put down the last ficha in the previous hand begins. The player to the right then must lay a tile that has a six. If that player puts a (6:2) on the table then the person to the right has the option of playing a six, because the (6:6) still has an open side, or a two because the 2 from the (6:2) is also open. If the player chooses to play the (2:5) this is how the board would look:

(5:2)(2:6)(6:6)

Now the third player has the option of playing a five or a six because those are the two numbers that are open.

The hand continues until either one player runs out of flichas, ¨dominó,¨ or the game is closed, ¨truncau.¨ For a truncau to occur all seven fichas of a number must be played, and that number must be facing out at both ends of the game. Each number, 0-6, is on seven fichas. Take six for example, there is (6:0), (6:1), (6:2), (6:3), (6:4), (6:5), (6:6). In a truncau the board could look something like this:

(6:4)(4:3)(3:6)(6:6)(6:2)(2:1)(1:6)(6:0)(0:5)(5:6)

Here the board is closed because the outside numbers are both sixes, and all of the fichas with six have been played. No one can go. In a truncau the player that puts down the last six must have less dots on their remaining fichas than the person to their right. If there are less that team wins, but if the player to the right has less, than the other team wins the hand.

In either case, a truncau, or a dominó, the dots on the remaining fichas from every players hand are added up to produce a score for the winning team. That is one hand or ¨mano.¨ The game continues untill one team reaches a score of two hundred.

There are three other ways of scoring points outside of manos.

1.if someone leads with a tile, for example the (5:5), and the person to their right does not have a 5 in their hand. That is twenty-five points for the team that started the game. If, however, the next person also is without a five no points are given.

2. If someone lays down a tile during the game and all three other players cannot play. That is twenty-five points for that person´s team

3. If a player puts down their last ficha, and this ficha can be played at either end of the board, except in the case of a double. That is called capecoa and it is 25 points for the team. For example one open end is a 2 and on the other end there is a five. If the player´s last ficha is a (2:5), that is capecoa, however, if there is a two at either end, then a (2:2) does earn capecoa.

On top of all the rules and point scoring system there is certain culture that surrounds the game. Just like baseball in the US and Football in England it is difficult to play without a beer in hand. In fact an actual domino table has four built in cup holders, just big enough to fit the average plastic cup given to a customer at all colmados when a beer is purchased.

There is of course the constant trash talk that hums on throughout the game, phrases such as: ¡Ay Cuño! or ¡Dichoso! meaning: Damn, and lucky shit.

There is also of course the constant slapping of fichas onto the table. When a player believes he or she is making a particularly good play and knows that the person to the right will not be able to play, or that he or she is setting up his enfrente to win the game. The player will take a ficha, raise it high in the air and SLAP it onto the table, letting all players, observers, and the guy buying a bottle of brugal at the colmado that, yes, he is that good.